The Wrexham freight train is rolling into League Two this season – and they’ll be taking no prisoners despite being newly-promoted
Love them or loathe them, it’s going to be impossible to ignore Wrexham’s first season back in the Football League since 2008. Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney have transformed the fallen giants beyond recognition over the past two-and-a-half years and, following their record-breaking promotion from the National League, they are finally mixing it with the big boys again.
However, this isn’t going to be a season of consolidation. Reynolds and McElhenney have never been ones to temper expectation when it comes to their football club and all of the noises coming out of the SToK Racecourse suggests that the Dragons believe they can go up again.
To get the players sharp for the task ahead, Phil Parkinson’s charges were whisked off on a pre-season tour of the United States, where they basked in their new-found fame stateside as well as playing friendlies against the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United.
It’s not been a perfect summer, though. During that United clash, star man Paul Mullin was unintentionally clattered by Nathan Bishop, leaving him with a punctured lung. The unpleasant injury means Mullin will miss the opening part of Wrexham’s season – which is a real blow. They’ve also struggled, or opted against, strengthening in the transfer market.
So, where does all this leave the Dragons heading into the 2023-24 campaign? GOAL takes an in-depth look at their prospects…
This team is good enough to secure one of the three automatic promotion spots. Although they’ve been quiet on the transfer front since securing the National League title, Reynolds and McElhenney have almost exclusively recruited players operating ‘below their level’ since taking over in north Wales.
Rob Lainton, Callum McFadzean, Ben Tozer, Eoghan O’Connell, Elliot Lee and Paul Mullin have all won promotion from the fourth tier in the past, while several others in the squad can even boast Premier League experience or higher-division play-off wins. Their manager, Parkinson, also knows how to get out of the league, having done so with Bradford City in 2013.
Few clubs in the division can compete with the Dragons’ wage budget, though their principle competition will likely come from Stockport, Gillingham, Salford and old National League sparring partners Notts County.
Away from the league, Wrexham will be hopeful of replicating their FA Cup run from last season, where they reached the fourth round before being beaten by Sheffield United in a tense replay.
It should be easier this season to experience success on this front. Not only will they enter the FA Cup at a later stage, they’ll also have an extra trophy to vie for; losing the FA Trophy but gaining the Carabao Cup and Papa Johns Trophy.
Elliot Lee Wrexham 2023-24Getty Images
‘Championes, championes, ole, ole ole!’ This Wrexham team got a taste of glory last season and they’ll be desperate to keep the momentum going. It’s a long campaign, but their squad is strong and if they are in a good position by Christmas, Parkinson will likely be backed in the January transfer window.
Reynolds and McElhenney will also be hoping that season two of ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ is another box-office hit, further increasing their already-sizeable commercial footprint across the globe. In an ideal world, the Dragons would be in a strong position on and off the pitch to complete an unprecedented triple promotion by the end of the season.
Mentally and physically drained from a demanding U.S. tour, Parkinson’s charges fall behind the pace-setters and cannot regain ground, finishing outside the play-off places.
That is the fear that will be playing on Wrexham fans’ minds as we creep towards the start of the season. When the club’s pre-season jaunt were announced, a portion of locally-based supporters had raised concerns about the toll that all those air miles could take on the squad.
And while Wrexham took steps to prevent this, including employing sleep experts and subjecting players to intense physical MOTs, a slow start is not out of the realm of possibility.
Failing to go up this season would be a real blow. Playing for Wrexham comes with plenty of advantages, but some of Parkinson’s best players may look to move up the leagues with other clubs if they cannot do it with the Dragons.
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Wrexham’s spine is extremely strong for tier four, with goalkeeper Ben Foster, defenders Ben Tozer and Eoghan O’Connell, and attacking midfielder Elliot Lee among the very best in their positions in League Two.
Ahead of them sits the team’s talisman – the free-scoring Paul Mullin. Mullin has been the poster boy of Reynolds and McElhenney’s Wrexham revolution and his status as the owners’ favourite is well deserved. Over the past three league seasons he has averaged an astonishing 0.74 goals per game, a spell that has included him winning the League Two Golden Boot with Cambridge United in 2021.
He has also barely missed a game during that time, making his pre-season injury all the more frustrating. Wrexham will be praying that Mullin’s recovery is swift as they are far less fearsome force without him leading the line.
This one wasn’t hard to choose. Wrexham have only added one player to their ranks this summer: Will Boyle. Snapped up from Championship side Huddersfield Town, Boyle is an old-fashioned centre-back who loves defending and everything that entails in League Two.
There is more to the 27-year-old than meets the eye, though. As a young player, Boyle used his downtime effectively, studying and eventually obtaining a business management degree from the Open University. He also has a strong relationship with Wrexham captain Ben Tozer, having played with the long-throw specialist during the pair’s time together at Cheltenham Town.
There is still time for the Dragons to strengthen further before the transfer window closes and their plans may have been shifted following Mullin’s untimely injury. For now though, Boyle is the only new face for supporters to get acquainted with this season.
Wrexham Owen Cushion splitGetty Images/Wrexham AFC
Wonderkid to watch
Wrexham largely relied on experience to get out of the National League last season, but there were some significant contributions from younger members of the squad – none more so than Max Cleworth.
The centre-back broke into the first team during the 2021-22 season, following an injury to Harry Lennon, and he featured frequently last campaign too. Liverpool-born Owen Cushion will be hoping to follow in his footsteps this season, having penned his first professional contract with the club in the summer.
After agreeing that deal, Cushion said: “It’s unbelievable to sign, I’ve been with the club for 11 years and to now get my first professional deal is so surreal. I’m really looking forward to working with Phil Parkinson, he’s a manager with great experience and I can’t wait to get started in pre-season.”
Parkinson seemed similarly enthused, adding: “It’s great for Owen to sign his first professional contract with the club. He progressed well in the youth and reserve teams and we’re looking forward to working with him in the coming season.”
While Cushion did not feature in the pre-season friendlies against Chelsea and United, the midfielder might find his way into the first-team picture if he can impress in training and in the Papa Johns Trophy.
Jacob Mendy Wrexham 2023-24Getty Images
Feeling the pressure
Mullin was not the only Wrexham player to suffer an injury during pre-season. Defender Jordan Tunnicliffe is also set to miss the start of the campaign after picking up a calf problem.
The setback comes at a less than opportune time for the 29-year-old. The addition of Boyle leaves Wrexham very well stocked at centre-back and even with Parkinson’s system affording places for three central defenders, Tunnicliffe could find it difficult to break into the team regularly if Wrexham start well.
Elsewhere, Jacob Mendy is preparing for his first-ever season in the Football League. While he has shone over the past few years, it’s still a step up in quality for the flying wing-back. Mendy has at least shone he relishes pressure in recent times, so it’s likely he will rise to the challenge.
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Calling the shots
League Two can be a tough division to get out of. The games seemingly never stop coming and teams in the bottom half of the table have increasingly embraced an attritional style out of fear of getting relegated.
In conditions like this, you need a manager hardened by a lifetime in the lower leagues leading you. Phil Parkinson is that man. The Dragons ruthlessly dispatched of Dean Keates to bring in Parkinson back in 2021 – in scenes famously depicted in ‘Welcome to Wrexham’.
It was a tough decision and it’s one that’s paid off in the long run. The football isn’t always easy on the eye, but Parkinson’s 3-5-2 has been extremely effective. When the confidence is flowing, Wrexham are capable of playing some lovely stuff too.
His experience at this level – over 700 Football League games in total – will be invaluable over the course of the season. Wrexham are in very safe hands.